Food For Thought




I have been proud to be surrounded by a strong and thriving food culture almost everywhere I've lived and traveled. I mean, food is a massive part of the life experience. Not just mine, but everyone's. Living in the North Beach district of San Francisco, looking for excellent and delicious food is like going to a Mayweather boxing match in Vegas, hoping for Money to win. It will happen—no doubt about it.

The variety is undeniable: Italian, Chinese, burger joints, fish places, ice cream sandwiches, tacos; it's a dream. I can already see your mouth watering; it's that good.


Food is such an essential part of life. We literally cannot live without it.


However, one of the major flaws of this is that my entire life, albeit a few months after my birth, I've notoriously had a weight problem. And I mean, a problem. You know how people talk about the Freshman 15? Try the Freshman 40.


In my senior year of high school, I weighed about 230 pounds. Eighteen years old, about 5'10", with that amount of weight, well, it's safe to say I was a bit heavy. By the time I became a sophomore, I was 270 pounds.


I couldn't look at myself in a mirror; I didn't want to step onto the scale, and I'm not proud of this: whenever people asked how much I weighed, I would continuously lie and say, "Oh, yeah, I stepped on the scale, I'm about 240, maybe 250." But, deep inside, I knew I had a massive issue.


Part of this was that I was constantly ordering out, too lazy to cook. Plus, in the typical undergrad college story, a recurring theme is eating high-fat, high-carbohydrate, non-nutrient dense foods. Jumping from class to class, you don't care what you put into your body, so long as it's delicious and can keep you going.


However, the most tragic thing is that I'm not even the worst or most extreme poor nutrition case in the United States.


In part, due to this crisis, America is the most obese nation in the world, with just under half the population registering as obese. Yeah. Under half. Type-2 diabetes in children has now the highest number of cases than at any point in recorded history. The leading causes of preventable death in the United States, such as heart disease, cancer (including endometrial, breast, prostate, and colon), chronic lower respiratory diseases, stroke, diabetes, and yes, suicide, can all be traced back to the obesity problem, which can be traced back to, you guessed it, poor nutritional habits.


And, folks, don't even get me started on the now over 50 million Americans who literally cannot afford to eat since the pandemic (a rise from the typical 37 million). The fact that, in the largest and most powerful economy in the world, proper nutrition is not something everyone can afford says a lot.


But anyway, where was I? Oh, yeah. Creating balanced nutrition.


Of course, it's not easy to establish a balance. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it. The reason why is that it depends on a myriad of factors: age, gender, lifestyle, how much activity you do, culture, what foods are available, and so on. If there weren't that many variations, and everyone could stick to the same foods, exercise the same amount, and be at a healthy weight, we wouldn't be having a problem like this, and, well, I wouldn't have to write this. However, it is such an important thing to do.


The benefits of a balanced diet, or I should say, food lifestyle choices, are numerous to the point where deciding not to lose massive amounts of excess weight are important. A balanced diet can reduce risk and improve the chances of recovery for numerous diseases, including one that we hear about so often, it can reduce high blood pressure, lower your cholesterol, which leads to a healthier heart, which can lead to a lower chance of heart surgery, one of the most common procedures in American hospitals. Most importantly, however, a balanced diet can improve your well-being, both mentally and physically.


Which leads me back to, well, me. The last time we checked in, I was 270 pounds, having gained 40 pounds in my freshman year. At one point, partially because of the excess weight, I suffered from numerous panic attacks and low self-esteem. I would maintain a high amount of weight during my time in college, and it was only because of the pandemic that I had the time, energy, and focus on bringing my weight down.


At most, I have lost thirty pounds due to modifications in my diet and increased activity, a rare feat during the pandemic. The panic attacks have all but disappeared, and I feel stronger and better than I have in my entire life. Yes, I'll admit, like a few people, I gained some of it back, but I never said I was done with the process. It's a process, after all, and, hopefully, with a lot of hard work and consistency, I can get myself to a healthy weight that makes me feel good and mentally strong. Like I said, proper nutrition can change your life.


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In the problem-solving process, a standard train of thought is that to fix a problem, the key is to, well, find a solution. However, there is so much information thrown to us in health classes, government regulations, and what we see and hear that makes nutrition a little more challenging to handle.

People my age who learned about nutrition learned about the Food Pyramid and the Steps, as well as the MyPlate system, created by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which tried quantifying how much of each food group is needed for a proper diet.


They kept promoting the idea that maintaining a proper diet was just plain difficult, and yeah, it did feel difficult.


And, throughout our lives, we were constantly told that "breakfast is the most important meal of the day," we couldn't eat any high-fat foods, the best way to eat is through small portions spread out throughout the day, supplements being scams, being skinny was the only way to be healthy, etc.


There are so many of these adages that I'm sure you're still going through in your head that we all heard about that made proper nutrition more elusive than a unicorn.


However, most prevalent of all was that losing weight and maintaining proper nutrition was a matter of "calories in, calories out," and that it was easy. The best example of this is probably the original run of the NBC megahit, "The Biggest Loser," which had obese people lose weight for money under the guise of being healthy for them.


To a degree, yeah, it probably helped a lot of them. Still, people often forget that, for some of these contestants, they gained the weight back and then some after leaving the show because of how "easy" it was.


The truth is that proper nutrition is hard. It isn't easy. It is a process. These are things you're going to hear from everybody who has tried. It's not easy, and when unhealthy foods surround you, it's easy to slip, going from a green salad one day to eating a massive sausage pizza the next, with a side of a chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream pint from Ben and Jerry's.


There is more than one way to lose weight. Don't believe me? Look at everyone who has infamously lost massive amounts of weight. They all have different methods, each of which works for them.


John Goodman, whose massive frame on top of his personality made him infamously loveable on "Roseanne," lost 100 pounds through cutting sugar out of his diet and exercising six days a week. Penn Jillette, half of the legendary Vegas magician Penn and Teller double-act, lost over 100 pounds on what he called an "all-potato diet."


Now, I'm not saying you should go out and do what they did because you shouldn't. It worked for them, but it won't necessarily work for you. Maybe the key is smaller portions or cutting out things from your lifestyle, but you won't know until you figure it out. No two people, no two bodies are the same. Some are just built differently from others. It's a fact of life.


When it comes down to healthy diets, there are only three things you need to know to do it successfully. These are the evergreen parts of proper nutrition. There's more than one way to lose weight, more than one way to have a healthy diet, and, most important of all; a healthy diet is nutritionally balanced. If you remember those three factors, then you're already a third of the way there.


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Nutrition has always been something that has been beyond important in many aspects of living. After all, without food, culture is greatly diminished, people lose jobs, and the human race cannot survive. And when I say they "cannot survive," I don't mean the hyperbolic "cannot survive" when we say we can't survive without material objects like phones. This is the real deal. We cannot survive without food.

However, for all of us, proper nutrition is becoming more and more difficult in more ways than one. It is not just on how to create a proper plan, but also on how much the world is changing and the amount of food on the planet.


Climate change, for example. Now, you may ask why climate change could impact the amount of food and quality? Well, let's start with the obvious. In science classes, we're taught that the greenhouse gasses that go up into the air that thin the atmosphere and contribute to climate change are carbon dioxide, water vapor, and ozone.


However, not many talk about the fourth greenhouse gas, one of the few that will directly impact most of us: methane. Methane has long been described as a cleaner fuel than fossil fuels found in natural gas.


However, most of the methane released into the atmosphere is harmful. While natural gas has a high amount of methane, the highest agricultural source comes down to one animal, amazingly popular in not only the American diet but also the general world diet: the almighty cow.


Cows end up creating climate change, and beef is one of the staples of food due to the variety of dishes you can make with it and because, let's be honest, it's delicious when done right.


And then, we have the plants, of which 76 percent of the world gets most of their daily nutrients. Due to droughts and floods, it is becoming increasingly challenging to grow staple food crops such as rice, wheat, and maize. As a result, the amount of these staples is decreasing quickly, leading to widespread famine.


As a result, with growing populations and a limited amount of food, much like other essential resources, there is improper allocation, which can lead to high obesity, such as the United States, which has the most obese people in the world, at about 42.4 percent, just under 140 million people. Or much like many developing nations, there isn't enough food to go around, with a combined 260 million starving or with the potential of starving, according to the United Nations.


Either way, this would cause massive health problems, each potentially resulting in death, with each finding a common root in nutrition.


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Of all the various facts that have impacted nutrition, the largest one, which was also the only factor no one saw coming until January, is a particular pandemic called COVID-19.

When the first case emerged in China's Wuhan Province, no one imagined that phrases such as "social distancing," "quarantine," "work from home," and "self-isolation" would become a part of our global lexicon. The world has changed drastically since COVID has taken hold. As such, proper nutrition has taken somewhat of a backseat.


However, it's possible that having proper nutrition as a priority during the pandemic would have potentially saved lives. The effect of nutrition can be split into two categories: those who have already fought or are currently fighting COVID-19, and those lucky enough not to have been diagnosed and are every taking precautionary measure they can think of.


We'll start with the patients. At the beginning, I mentioned that a properly balanced diet can help prevent or even aid in the recovery of disease. COVID-19 is no exception. Early studies have shown that those with COVID-19 can be considered at high risk of malnourishment, which would lead to the deterioration of muscle mass, including, most importantly, respiratory muscles, which the coronavirus directly targets.


The loss of muscle mass, poor lung performance, and the weakening of the immune system can only lead to two possible outcomes: first, obviously, is death, but the second is a poor quality of life if you are lucky to survive.


Malnourishment, however, is not the only problem. After H1N1 spread like wildfire in 2009, studies were conducted, then revitalized in the wake of COVID-19, that showed that being obese or severely obese was, in fact, a link to a higher risk of succumbing to the coronavirus.


In other words, an additional way to combat the coronavirus, other than hand sanitizer, social distancing, and masks, is to ensure proper nutrition and exercise wherever possible. However, with current policies in place, such as curfews, that can be difficult.


The difficulties, however, do not stop there. Let's talk about non-COVID patients and life in general throughout this pandemic. I think it's safe to say that, within the last year, the largest priority was not on nutrition, but rather, settling into a new rhythm as offices, schools, and business closed and any semblance of a plan was shut down.


Add to all this that a massive way to keep our sanity intact was not to listen to news reports as much, creating massive anxiety. It was only a matter of time before poor nutritional habits reared their ugly heads.


So, already, we have a cocktail of psychological impact in the forms of anxiety disorder, depressive symptoms, perceived stress, PTSD, and poor sleep quality. The lack of sleep directly affects appetite, making people feel hungrier. And the boredom. Don't forget the boredom. That's immediately a sign that people are going to eat more. And, since the focus was not getting nutrient-dense food, but rather something quick and cheap, people would often order in through takeout.


And also, it's not as if people want to go out every day or every other day to buy groceries. It's tedious and boring; thus, getting fresher ingredients to put into our bodies is even more challenging.


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As of time of this writing, things are slowly, but surely, coming up roses. With two vaccines already at 95 percent efficacy, it is only a matter of time before life can start coming back to normal. What cannot come back to normal, however, is our general eating habits. So, what do we do?

For that, legendary chef and the woman who brought cooking to the United States, Julia Child, had the answer: “You don't have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces - just good food from fresh ingredients.”


She’s quite right. Both of us from California, we appreciate that going to shop for quality ingredients produces high-quality food that can be healthier than any restaurant and, at the very least, fun to prepare. It’s both cheaper and healthier long-term, and the possibilities for dishes are literally endless.


Using fresh fruits and vegetables, proteins, whether chicken or lamb or pork, or, for the vegetarians and vegans, using beans, fish, tofu, whole grains, low fat or fat free dairy can produce some great meals. I’ve done it myself and I’m not the best chef, so, trust me, it’s possible.


Obviously, nutrition is only one half of the battle for general well-being. The other half comes down to a little thing called exercise. You can have the best food in the world, but if you don’t move, you may as well pack some pounds, and if you’re already up there in weight, it’s not going to help, rather harm.


And as for the comfort foods we love to order out for so much, you can still have them, just remember to eat them in moderation! I am a huge fan of chicken curry, but if you eat it every day, then you can end up walking around like a big fat blob, and unless you like being one, it can lead to other, deeper issues.


Already, there are solutions readily available, actions that can even be taken before we are all vaccinated. Food will always be around us, no matter what. It’s only up to us how we will define our relationship with it.


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Suppose isolation and social media increase the severity of the suicide crisis towards the Millennial generation and older. In that case, it is safe to say that the coronavirus pandemic, a news fixture from the moment the ball dropped in Times Square, will cause suicide rates to skyrocket by the time 2021 rolls around.

The common triggers of isolation, loneliness, and generalized stress, often present in suicide cases, are now factors no longer foreign to anyone during this pandemic, as social distancing of at least six feet apart, zero physical contact, and general minimal social contact become a part of everyday life. With coverage occurring around the clock, it is impossible to escape the firestorm of stress and exhaustion from the COVID outbreak.

Everyday activities, such as going to a place of worship, taking a stroll, going to the office, all things we often take for granted, are now slowly becoming activities of the past. These essential activities that give us some sense of community and mental clarity are now being removed. In its place, it is creating greater mental fogginess and an increasing chance for a higher number of suicides.

Even Dr. Thomas E. Joiner, remember the Venn diagram and the man who stated that suicide happens because it can, wrote in a recent study with Dr. Mark A. Reger and Ian H. Stanley, “Secondary consequences of social distancing may increase the risk of suicide.”

However, it is necessary to note that isolation and loneliness are not the only factors in suicide that have been omnipresent during COVID. As businesses have closed and more people have been either working from home or even been laid off or fired, there has been massive economic stress. Having children in school during the pandemic only worsens, as some parents have chosen to take time off work due to children being sent home.

Even simple measures, such as COVID-19 screening and the prioritization of COVID patients over those suffering from mental health issues, which is fair considering the pandemic’s seriousness, is making the problem worse.

As someone who recently went to the hospital, granted for a checkup, I can say that the process of even making an appointment was tedious and time-consuming. Even surveys and screening procedures before entering the hospital gave me enough time to think, in my mind, as to whether or not I wanted to continue or go home.

Often, patients would want their support system with them, such as their children or families. However, since they are not screened, they are not allowed into the building with the patients, causing higher anxiety and less effective treatment.

In fact, because of hospital overcrowding and the unspoken recommendation and actions to put off necessary procedures and treatments to give the medical professionals on the frontlines time to help save COVID patients, creating immense barriers, making it even more challenging to treat the problem.

The timing of the pandemic, too, could not have come at a worse time. Often, a misconception of suicide is that it most often occurs during late December, during the holidays where families get together and celebrate love. In fact, in the northern hemisphere, suicide rates peak in the late spring and early summer. Sadly, this is also the same time where COVID-19 prevention efforts peaked.

It doesn’t get any more unfortunate than that.

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